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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

S.U.S.S.-ing History: Simulating United States Slavery

I have been trying to be pretty cool with school officials regarding my third child. With my first two children, I used to constantly be involved in interactions with teachers and school officials over nonsensical, outrageous, and just plain stupid educational matters. However, I have been forced out of my hiatus because I have come face-to-face with yet another of what appears to be a ridiculous project. 

My daughter is scheduled to go on a field trip where she will get to "pretend" to be a fugitive slave. Here is a description from the materials:

"--During this program I/we will be betraying the part of a pre-Civil War fugitive slave.

--This program is designed to simulate the experiences of the fugitive slave, and includes the use of aggressive language and intimidation. Program props include: sounds of gunshots, whips and shackles."

The program apparently also includes simulations of being sold on an auction block, and includes pursuit by bounty hunters.

(This is worse than the time my child and other black children were told to pretend to be escaped slaves who ran to New York and came in through Ellis Island. This is because the teachers running the program on the immigrant experience apparently did not understand or believe that there were actual black immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Never mind that I showed them evidence of my child’s own Ellis Island ancestors and other black entrants. So, they made up this sadly ahistorical, entirely fictitious gobbledygook. I wish I were kidding. While there are many excellent programs in our schools, there are also some that fail miserably.)

While the field trip materials indicate, “At no time during the program will the visitors be in physical danger,” this claim is belied by the quite lengthy and detailed release and hold harmless agreement also contained in the materials. In this release parents and students are warned that participation “may involve risk of personal and bodily injury.” Though  this release language may simply be legal boilerplate meant to insulate the venue from what they hope is the unlikely event of a lawsuit by a child participant or her parents, it also stands as a clear acknowledgement that even pretend beatings, gunshots, intimidation, and pursuit have very real risks. 

This field trip betrays a shocking level of obtuseness given all of the issues with race relations today. As one black child (who, like my daughter, will not to go on the trip) said to my daughter, “Why would I want to go on a field trip and pay eight dollars so somebody can pretend to beat me in order to frighten me?” My daughter is similarly dubious about the value of such a trip. She has learned a great deal about slavery, much of it through reading portions of a socio-legal history I am writing about a real fugitive slave (some of which is chronicled at

My child understands, as do many other children, that we are not living in the time of slavery. But we are living in times when some of our children’s ancestors were enslaved not very far outside of living memory. And worse yet, we are living in times when incidents like the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice (who, sadly and ironically, was playing with a toy or simulated gun when he was shot by the very real gun of a policeman) remind our children that the treatment of African-ancestored slaves is at the foundation of many present-day situations of social and economic inequality, injustice, racism and hatred aimed at African-ancestored people. Even in 2015, we live in the long and heavy shadow of United States enslavement of African ancestored people.  Sadly, many of our children do not need situations of simulated racial hatred and oppression in order to understand it. They have seen it, and some have even experienced it.

It is important for our society to teach our children about the history of slavery and its legacy.  However, we must do so with, as my esteemed colleague Dr. Pearson (see below) notes, an appropriate perspective, with sensitivity, respect, and in a setting conducive to meaningful discussion. Despite the claim by the program provider that their program has been vetted by educators and others, it is difficult to understand how anyone, whether educator, mental health care provider, or any other professional, could responsibly coach children through enacting trauma, violence and injustice. Some may argue that having children who participate in such programs be "cast against type," that is, having white children play slaves, and black children play white masters, depersonalizes and desensitizes the program for both black and white children. With this I vehemently disagree. Because such "living history" presentations by necessity trade upon the fact that all participants are pretending and live in far more comfort than did enslaved Africans in the United States, it is simply not to possible to replicate the experience of those enslaved persons. It is grotesque and offensive to try to do so, perhaps all the more so when casting against type is used. Such role-playing trivializes and makes a game of one of the major tragedies of our country and in the history of the world.

Could we envision, for example, a child-staffed representation of the Holocaust that involved simulated incarceration in a Jewish ghetto or concentration camp, or a simulation of the Irish Potato Famine that involved the mock starvation and eviction of Irish tenant farmers by their English overlords? I think the answer is no, and for good reason. These sorts of historic traumas are generally treated with sensitivity and respect. We should question why this is not more often the case with African slavery.

One friend, college classmate, and academic colleague, Dr. Kim Pearson, kindly shared with me a link to an article that offers resources for teachers on how to teach slavery, especially to middle school children. The link is here: I urge parents, educators and curriculum designers everywhere to read Dr. Pearson’s article and to look at these resources, many of which are drawn from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, an organization whose members are historians, educators, and other professionals in the field of African American history.

We owe all of our children an education about United States slavery that is intelligible, thoughtful, nuanced, sophisticated and sensitive.